Sitting down to write after a long break calls to mind the idea of getting back on a bike after years of not owning one, or playing a sport after a lengthy injury. You have “muscle memories” associated with these activities, and while the process may initially feel awkward or uncomfortable, you start to get back into a groove after a little work.
It has now been about two years since I have written on a blog or regarding food. Food writing was – and still occasionally is – a personal pain point. I left the Providence restaurant world, dropped out of culinary school (making me a “drop-out” despite a double-major honors BA and a Master’s Degree), and fled to the suburbs of Philadelphia, depleted of all cooking self-esteem with no desire to pursue any additional work in food service. While prior to culinary school and my stints at two Providence restaurants I had ambitions of applying to jobs at Vetri or Zahav if I ever returned home, I came back with a visceral fear of simultaneously being let down by and letting down chefs that I admired.
My entire perspective of the restaurant industry had been tainted. I entered with such admiration for the cooking process, for chefs and what I perceived as their “art,” and for the journeymen who put in insane hours in pursuit of the perfect meal. The reality is that I never had the restaurant experience portrayed in The French Laundry Cookbook or one of Michael Ruhlman’s homages to chefdom. I went from a turn-and-burn college town restaurant (which, I might add, I look back upon the most favorably out of all of my restaurant jobs), to a hotel with a cuisine identity crisis, to a farm-to-table staple in a city with a burgeoning food scene. At all of the restaurants above, the cooking process I was obsessed with – the crisp perfection of good caramelization or crosshatch grill marks, the complex and satisfying depth of a braise, or even the beauty of a well-plated and garnished dish – was replaced by a frantic nightly race to the finish to prep, cook, and send out food. The chefs I looked up to seemed to prefer that I teach myself, ignored my successes, and hovered and lambasted me for my failures with no constructive recommendations for improving my skills. The “journeymen” were in reality no different than I was: cooking to escape, reveling in the perceived machismo of life on the line – the cuts, burns, and beat downs, and fighting nightly to avoid burning out completely. Rather than crafting dishes and being “part of a family,” I felt like I was in a constant state of narrowly dodging unemployment or accidental cutlery-induced dismemberment, tumbling through someone else’s vision of fine cooking, and attempting to absorb the blows of the unpredictable and back-stabbing restaurant world.
The reality – and this came through in a number of my blog entries throughout that time – was that the sexiness of cooking in restaurants came in extremely small doses. Danny Meyer (of Union Square Restaurant Group) comes in and thanks you for cooking dinner for his family; you enjoy the sunset and the smell of dripping chicken fat while cooking for fifty on a sandbar in the middle of Point Judith; the local farmer drops off varieties of herbs and vegetables so beautiful that they might as well have been painted or sculpted by a Renaissance artist. More often than not, it was about the little victories: the round of shots from a local chef at the end of the night, or the joy finally shucking an oyster without inflicting any major bodily harm. Most of it was an endless, sleepless grind – one that left me hardly seeing my wife, with no real social life apart from drinking heavily with other cooks, and with an overall twitchy and suspicious-of-everyone demeanor that few found very endearing.
So after returning to Philadelphia, I fell into an entirely different industry without even a thought of applying to work at a restaurant. While I occasionally began typing out general musings on food or cooking, I would typically drift off into a bitter diatribe about the state of the industry and immediately delete anything I had written. I continued to cook, but avoided complicated recipes, elaborate presentations, and any outward indications that I ever worked in a restaurant or attended culinary school. I still have coworkers who have no idea that this was a major part of my life prior to my current job. Picking up haute cuisine cookbooks was depressing – both from seeing the life I could have pursued, and simultaneously, from seeing the environment I felt was so lacking in my own culinary experiences. It was a fantasy, a failed pursuit, the dream that I let break me. All of these things led me to abandon “blogging” and food writing.
Writing, however, is more than a hobby. It is a therapeutic endeavor regardless of whether one writes fantasy novels, political journalism, or a craft blog. There is a legitimate sensation of being “full” of ideas, and the act of writing becomes a purge. It is the metaphorical pot boiling over: heat causes liquid to evaporate into gas, the gas fills the space between the water and the lid until finally, the pressure becomes so extreme that the lid shakes and the liquid spews violently over the rim of the pot. All of which could have been remedied by simply adjusting the lid a bit to let a bit of the steam out. The mind – or at the very least mine – works in the same way: sometimes you just need to get a few thoughts out on the page rather than simply “boiling over” with ideas.
I am, therefore, after a considerable respite, returning to this blog – if for no other reason than to keep the ideas flowing and the desire to write alive. Will every post involve food? Hopefully! How often will I post? I don’t know. Will anyone read it? I certainly hope so, but only time will tell whether or not anyone wants to read my occasionally verbose and meandering thoughts. I can safely say that I am in a very different place – both mentally and physically – than I was two years ago when I “left cooking.” I have moved at least twice, I now own a house and a decent patch of land and my professional life is – at the very least – slightly less erratic. My feelings regarding food and cooking, however, have remained rather consistent. There is plenty of tastiness still out there for me to enjoy, so hopefully, you can appreciate my rendering of it in blog form. To end with a bit from Bulgakov, “the time has come for us to proceed to Part Two of this true narrative. Follow me, reader!” (Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita)